Jack Shitama is the Executive Director of Pecometh Camp & Retreat Ministries where he has served since 2000. He is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church and has served as pastor of churches in Port Deposit, MD and Chesapeake City, MD.
When we think about trying to change things for the better, whether in our family, congregation or organization, we often think about strategy and tactics. Where should we head? How do we get there?
Most of us overlook the power of presence.
When you are a non-anxious presence, you are someone who knows your beliefs, values and goals, AND you can stay emotionally connected to others, especially those who make you the most anxious.
When you are a non-anxious presence, you are authentic. You are your best self. There is power in presence.
In her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, psychologist and Harvard Business School professor, Amy Cuddy, defines presence as having confidence and trust in yourself in life’s most stressful situations. When you are present, you are in touch with your thoughts, goals, beliefs and values. And you are able to express them in a non-anxious way.
Presence is as important as strategy and execution. Why? Here are three reasons.
Presence is calming.
We expect a leader to be calm, cool and collected. When a leader has presence, when she is her authentic, best self, it brings the anxiety level of the whole system down.
When you know what you believe and how to express it in non-anxious ways, you are being present. When you do this in a way that gives others the freedom to disagree, you help the entire system to remain calm. This is especially important in stressful situations.
Presence is powerful.
Psychologists distinguish between social power and personal power. Social power is the power to control others. It comes with position, authority and status. Social power is a limited resource. It is highly dependent on our place, relative to others. We may climb to the top of one organization or network, giving us great social power. But there is almost always something bigger. Looking to gain social power keeps us always wanting more.
Personal power is an unlimited resource. Rather than coming from external conditions, it’s dependent on our own inner resources. It comes from acting on who we are and what we believe.
Personal power enables you to think more clearly and make better decisions. It enables you to be more vulnerable, making you less risk avoidant and more likely to forgive others. It also helps you to focus on making your best effort, based on your goals and values, regardless of the outcome.
Presence, being your best, authentic self, generates personal power. It increases your confidence and ability to do your best work, whether professionally or personally. The more present you are, the more personal power you will have, and the more you can bring to being your best self.
Presence is attractive.
This is the result of the other two reasons listed above. People are attracted to a leader who is calm, follows her values, and who doesn’t try to control others, but focuses instead on her own effort.
When you’re present, people may not always follow, but they are going to be more open to what you think and believe because you are authentic. This helps others to do the same for themselves, and that’s attractive.
I write a lot about being a non-anxious presence. By definition, when you are present in a positive way, you have your anxiety in check. And, when you can regulate your anxiety, you are more likely to be present. As a leader, this is one of your most important tasks.
Our ice cube tray was cracked and leaking all over the freezer. I went to the store and it was $0.97 to buy a replacement; the hard plastic kind that you turn upside down, grab each end and twist in opposite directions to eject the cubes.
Then I saw the silicone trays. Not only did they come in really bright colors, but they felt really awesome in my hands. All pliable and twisty. So I spent nearly $3.00 and bought one.
With the old tray, it took three seconds to eject the cubes into the bin. It took ten times longer with the new tray because the best I could do was eject one or two cubes at a time.
New is not necessarily better.
Old is not necessarily better, either.
Sometimes we hang onto things that we shouldn’t because we have so much invested, in terms of our emotions, time or resources. This is called the sunk cost fallacy. We think we have too much to lose by letting go of something that’s not really working. But what we have wrapped up in something should not impact future decisions. What’s done is done. So, if you need to let go, then let go.
Like the silicone ice cube tray.
It took me about three months before I gave up on it. It should have taken a week. I knew almost instantly that the old tray was better (do I sound like a church person?). But I kept trying to make it work, thinking that somehow it would get better. Deep down I knew better.
I finally went and spent the $0.97 and bought the old-style ice cube tray.
Newer is not necessarily better. Neither is older. Better is better.
So how do you evaluate when you need to try something new or keep the old? This is different than the standard cost-benefit analysis, which you may be familiar with. This is more about thinking through whether change is worth it.
Here are my thoughts.
Is the cost of the new worth it?
Costs come in a lot of forms besides money. Time and energy are often an overlooked factor. Two times in my nearly two decades at Pecometh we have switched database systems. Both times took a great amount of effort. The most recent time the learning curve was so hard that it took over a year for most of our staff to feel comfortable with it. The new database definitely has some benefits, but even after three years there are some on our staff who would say it wasn’t worth switching. Even some of those people would rather not consider switching back to the old system, since even without the learning curve, it takes a lot of time and energy just to make the conversion.
Another cost is grief over losing the old. This is certainly true in churches and institutions with long-standing practices. Where possible, I find it’s best to add something new, without taking away the old to increase its odds of acceptance. For example, if you’re thinking of doing a new worship service to reach a different demographic segment, it’s going to be much easier if you do it without replacing or cancelling an existing service. Otherwise, you’ll not only expend a lot of emotional effort on marshalling support for the new service, you’ll also be dealing with those who are grieving the loss of the old service.
As a leader, you are always thinking about how to improve. This is what leaders do. But this often means doing something new or doing it in a new way. Knowing how it will affect your ability to stay focused on what’s important will help you decide if it’s worth it.
What are the benefits?
If the new thing does not improve what you’re doing, then it’s just a new thing. Like the silicone ice cube tray, it might even make things worse. Here are some ways to think of benefits:
Will it help you do an existing thing more effectively or efficiently?
Will it help you broaden your impact in some way, i.e, reach more people or different people?
Will it have a positive impact on the culture of your church or organization?
We’ve recently had a lot of discussion about what to do with a four-acre grass field. It used to be leased to a local farmer, along with about 80 other acres on the property. Over a decade ago we stopped leasing it, thinking we could use it for programming. We never did.
To make matters worse, the field was so bumpy that it was rough on our mowers. Our Director of Facilities suggested we give it back to the farmer. We would save several staff hours a week during the mowing season, not to mention the wear and tear on the mowers.
However, we also explored the possibility of a meadow restoration project. I felt that it fit our culture of teaching Creation care. Meadows help protect the watershed by reducing nutrient runoff. They also increase wildlife habitat. So, in addition to saving time and money, we could add a feature that fits with who we are.
The challenge is to do it without costing a lot of time, effort and resources to make it happen. Fortunately, we found that the Maryland Department of Natural Resources provides technical assistance for these types of projects. They have suggested some low cost, low effort ways to get started. They also suggested grant funding that is available for this type of project. So far, this project is not too costly in time, effort and money, plus it provides several benefits.
Can you limit the downside risk?
This is often overlooked by those who have an entrepreneurial spirit. No risk, no reward. But innovating and improving don’t have to be an all or nothing endeavor. Limiting downside risk is a proven business practice. This provides the opportunity for getting better, without putting too much at risk if it doesn’t work.
If possible, one way to limit the downside is to test the idea. You can do this through a pilot or a limited experiment that will help determine if you should commit more resources. Here’s my blog post that includes a section about experimentation. Even if your test doesn’t work the way you expect, you will learn valuable lessons that can help you do better the next time.
Another way is to manage the worst case scenario. When we develop new programs at Pecometh, we typically offer them during non-peak periods when we would likely be empty. This way, we are not using capacity that could otherwise generate income. If we don’t have a great turnout the first time, we are able to stick with it for longer, since the downside risk is low.
Regardless of how you do it, limiting downside risk to an acceptable level enables you to move forward with more confidence. If you can’t limit it, you might want to reconsider your options.
In summary, continuous improvement is a must for any church or organization. If you’re standing still, you’re getting behind. But doing it in a way that gives you the best possible chance is just good sense.
I recently attended a lecture at the Center for Family Process. The Center was co-founded by Edwin Friedman, author of Generation to Generation. It is where he shared much of his wisdom before his death in 1996. Friedman believed the most important role of a leader is to be a non-anxious presence.
Many attendees at the lecture have been participating for years, including the time when “Ed” was alive. One of them shared that “Ed” often listed six measures of effective leadership.
I was floored.
I have been studying the family systems approach to leadership since 1991. I had never seen this. During the break I rushed to ask about it. I was told that “Ed” often listed out these six criteria. I wrote them down.
It’s helpful to know Friedman’s definition of leadership through self-differentiation:
“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this. If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow. There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along. (Generation to Generation, p. 229)
I googled to see if I could find any articles by Friedman on the six measures, but couldn’t find anything. Zilch. I will share them, with my own comments, interpreting what I think Friedman would say. Here they are.
Your primary role as a leader is to have vision. Leading is about moving forward and vision means you know where you’re going. You may not always be correct, but if you aren’t trying to discern where you should be headed, you aren’t doing your job as a leader.
Self-differentiation is about defining your own goals and values amidst surrounding togetherness pressures. Vision is defining those goals and values.
What matters to you? Where do you think God is leading? What is the next step?
People want to be led. They want to know where they’re headed. Your role as a leader is to articulate that. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t need to know the entire path to the goal. You DO need an idea of the desired outcome AND what is the next step.
If you don’t share where you’re headed, those you work with will get anxious. And anxiety is poison.
This is Friedman’s term. If vision is the letter, than the envelope is how it’s delivered. This is not about methods, such as speeches, powerpoints, memos and vision statements. This is about being a non-anxious presence.
When you articulate your vision, can you do it in a non-anxious way, giving others the freedom to disagree?
Reaction to Sabotage
Vision is about change, and sabotage is inevitable when you are leading change. Those who are least emotionally mature will start to act out. They are usually not aware they’re doing it. It’s an automatic response to their own discomfort with change.
Sabotage is sometimes seen as an anxious-laden tirade about where you are headed. It more often comes in the form of some other attack. The issue could be anything: how you dress; the budget; whether the hymns are played too slowly; or whether the family that volunteers to clean the church should have to provide the toilet paper at their own expense (I’m told that a church actually split over this last issue. Really.).
What’s important is that the content of the issue is irrelevant. When sabotage is at work, it is the process of people picking fights that undermines the change effort.
Your role as a leader is to maintain a non-anxious presence through this process. This requires you to regulate your own anxiety so it doesn’t exacerbate the problem. It means not arguing the content of the issue with those who are making trouble. And, most importantly, it means staying emotionally connected to those making trouble. This last thing is the hardest thing to do.
The last thing in the world you want to do when people are making trouble is to stay connected with them. It’s counter-intuitive. Why would you want to get more into the muck?
But the worst thing you can do is disconnect. This will make the resistors even more anxious and more disruptive.
Remaining a non-anxious presence in the midst of sabotage means you don’t get sucked into the petty battles that emerge, but you DO stay connected to those who are fighting them. This is the hardest part of leadership. It is also the most critical.
The more anxious the system you lead, the more intense the sabotage you will face. In a chronically anxious system, it could take years of leading change as a non-anxious presence before there are enough healthy people to reduce that intensity. Most leaders don’t have the stamina.
What can you do?
First, do your own work. Look into your own family of origin to learn what makes you anxious and how you can rework those relationships. Then work to be a non-anxious presence in those relationships and settings that make you most anxious. It will help you to do that everywhere, but especially as a leader. It will also reduce your overall anxiety, which will increase your stamina.
Second, keep things in perspective. Facing sabotage can consume you. It can make you feel like it’s the only thing in the world. It’s not. The best thing you can do is to focus on things that bring you joy, especially if they are not connected the system you are leading. When you have a hobby or other personal pursuit, it is an outlet for stress and a source of positive energy. Finally, don’t let the sabotage dominate your relationships. When you are with those you care about, talk about things other than the sabotage you are facing.
Leadership is hard. But, if you do these two things, you can sustain a non-anxious presence over a long period of time. If you do, you will be amazed at the results.
Managing Your Own Loneliness
It’s lonely at the top. That’s what they say. If you are a leader, you are the top of something, whether it’s a family, work group, committee, church, organization or business. The “higher” up you are, the lonelier it gets.
Doing the things I mentioned in the Stamina section will help. But, here are two more suggestions.
First, invest in personal relationships. Your friends and family are a tremendous gift as a leader. They will not only support you in your efforts, they will help you to maintain a healthy outlook on your leadership. So don’t suck them dry. Give yourself to those you care about more than you ask from them. Doing this is not only life-giving, it will help prevent the loneliness that comes from leading.
Second, connect with peers in your vocation or profession. One of the things I notice about professional or trade associations is that they are a combination of professional development and support group. These people get you. They understand what you are going through in a way that few others can.
You don’t need to participate formally or in person. I am in a covenant group with United Methodist clergy that meets about once a month. It’s self-guided and informal. We’re there to connect and support each other. I’m also in a group of camp and retreat leaders from the northeast. We meet electronically once a month and follow a guided discussion. The important part of each of these groups is they are people I respect and who understand what I face as a leader. That’s priceless.
How are you doing as a leader? Take some time to reflect on these six measures of effectiveness. I am grateful that I came across them. That’s why I share them with you. Let me know what you think.
But he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a Samaritan city called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well. It was about noon.
This is the beginning of the Bible passage known traditionally as “the woman at the well.” It’s a contrast with Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus in John 3. In that case, a male, religious leader came to Jesus in the middle of the night. Here, Jesus approaches an unnamed female of an enemy people in the middle of the day.
If you don’t know the story, read John 4:4-42. It’s a long passage. In fact, there are 13 dialogue exchanges. It’s one of the longest conversations in the Gospel of John.
It’s a real conversation with someone who is completely different.
I believe there are three things we can learn from this to help us as leaders.
One: Intentionally seek out those who think and believe differently.
The text says Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” He was on his way from Jerusalem to Galilee. He could have gone a more roundabout way along the Jordan River to avoid Samaria. But, the road through Samaria was the most direct route.
Scholars indicate that the word translated “had to” is associated with God’s plan. As in, you know you “have to” do something because it’s God’s plan for you. In this case, it was God’s plan for Jesus to go through Samaria specifically to have this encounter.
Samaritans claimed only the first five books of the Hebrew bible as scripture. They believed Mt. Gerizim, in Samaria, to be the place God ordained for the temple. They built a shrine there in the 5th century BCE. The Jews claimed God’s home was at the temple in Jerusalem. This disagreement was central to the conflict between Samaritans and Jews. So much so, that Jewish troops destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128 BCE.
When Jesus approaches a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, he is crossing all sorts of boundaries. Jews avoided contact with Samaritans. Jewish men didn’t initiate conversation with an unknown woman. Rabbis didn’t engage in public conversations with women.
And, while the crux of the passage focuses on Jesus as Messiah and his gift of living water, I believe this passage calls Christians to have an openness to those who think and believe differently. Especially other Christians with whom we disagree on controversial issues.
There are lots of possibilities. Christians are divided on a host of issues including LGBTQ inclusion, black lives matter, gun control, the death penalty, immigration and #metoo.
When was the last time you “had to” engage in honest conversation with someone with whom you disagree?
Two: Don’t judge.
This is good advice, in general. In the text, Jesus reveals that he knows all about the woman. She’s had five husbands and the man she was with was not her husband. Though we may read a lot into this, scholars note that there can be a variety of reasons that a woman in the patriarchal society of Jesus’ day would have such a history without moral laxity. As one scholar notes, interpreters seem more concerned with her history than Jesus does.
Regardless, it is clear that Jesus passes no judgment.
How about you? Do you pass judgment on those who think and believe differently?
Three: Find common ground.
As I noted, a central conflict between Jews and Samaritans was the location of the temple. Jesus transforms the debate. He moves the worship of God from one based on location to one based on spirit and truth. In so doing, Jesus establishes common ground. Not just with the woman, but with many Samaritans who came to believe.
Rather than dividing, Jesus found ways to include.
What if, instead of focusing on where you disagree, you looked for areas of common ground?
One of the blessings in my life has been to work side by side in ministry with those I know believe differently than I on one or more important theological and/or political issues. We are able to find common ground in our faith in Jesus, as well as in the work that we are doing together. Sometimes we’ll have real conversations about the issues where we disagree. But, those issues don’t divide us because what we have in common is more important than where we disagree.
Effective leaders know what they believe. They are able to express their beliefs while giving others the freedom to disagree. But they do this in a way that moves the mission forward. Jesus, God in the flesh, shows us how we can do this.
Questions for Reflection:
Where can you start a conversation with someone who believes differently than you?
In my last post, I shared how you can strengthen your family by developing a historical narrative. This helps children grow up believing they are a part of something larger than themselves, resulting in greater well-being and resilience in the face of life’s inevitable challenges.
The same is true for the organization you lead, whether corporate, nonprofit or faith-based.
The bottom line: Effective leaders communicate organizational history. They help develop a historical narrative that’s a part of the culture. Here are three reasons why you should use organizational history as a leadership tool.
It reinforces the mission.
Just as developing a family narrative helps children feel part of something larger than themselves, your organizational narrative reinforces your mission. For example, the mission where I serve is to provide Christian hospitality and programming that promote God-inspired, life-changing experiences. Two of our former directors have told stories how they heard their calls to ministry in an outdoor chapel service during summer camp. A current staff member has a similar story, which occurred decades later. These stories give life to what we do, so that staff and volunteers understand that what we do makes a difference.
It creates identity.
Historical perspective helps your organization or ministry understand who you are. It helps you make the statement, “We’re the kind of people who…” For example, in a church that has a history of serving the poor in their community, the narrative will encourage people to say, “We’re the kind of people who serve those most in need so they’ll know God loves them.”
You might think that focusing on history just encourages stiff-necked people to glorify the past and resist change. Ironically, one of the key factors in effective change is an organizational identity. According to authors Dan and Chip Heath, in their book, Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard, identity has an important role in any change situation. People resist anything that violates who they think they are. On the other hand, they are likely to embrace anything that reinforces their organizational identity.
In the example above, church members are likely to resist a new ministry to corporate executives with hurried lives. It’s just not who they are. On the other hand, they will get excited about a new ministry to provide job skills for the working poor.
Which leads to the final way history can help you as a leader.
It can facilitate change.
Stories of the past can create resistance to change. But they don’t have to. The narrative can be a way to re-think how to do things or find new paths. One way to do this is find long-forgotten stories that shed new light on the current situation. These provide a counterpoint to often repeated stories that can keep things stuck. Another way to do this is to re-frame a well-known story to shift the narrative.
In 2003, we discerned God leading us to sell a beloved retreat facility and replace it with a new one on the camp property we already owned. It was a restored Georgian mansion that was given to our denomination by an anonymous donor in 1965, for use as a retreat center. The story goes that it was offered to another denomination first, but they turned it down. They thought it would be too expensive to operate. So we benefitted.
There was resistance to selling, because so many people had cherished memories of spiritual experiences they had there over nearly 40 years. We shifted the narrative to say how blessed we were that someone else turned down the gift because they thought it was too expensive to operate. It resulted in four decades of ministry. But, in the end, the other denomination was right. It WAS too expensive to operate and now it was time to sell. The retreat center was sold in 2005 and its replacement was completed in 2011.
It remains a cherished part of our history, but reframing the narrative helped others to see that a new path was not only possible, but was desirable.
Your role as a leader requires you to think about where you are going. But, that is anchored in a narrative that transcends you. Done properly, through reinforcing, and sometimes reframing, this narrative can provide meaning, purpose and direction for the organization you lead.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside of me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
I was holding my grandson last night. He’s not even three months old. But when he’s older I will tell him this story.
The legend doesn’t mention anxiety. But I’m the anxiety guy. For me, everything comes back to whether or not something feeds anxiety or reduces it. You can’t always choose your circumstances, but you can choose which wolf you feed. One will breed anxiety. The other will breed hope.
The wolves are hungry to influence how you function in your family, work, church and the world around you. Here are some thoughts about how to feed the good wolf.
Listen without reacting.
The worst thing you can do in an anxiety-producing situation is speak. You are likely to introduce more anxiety, which creates a downward spiral. Keep your thoughts to yourself and just listen. Saying, “Thanks for sharing,” followed by phrases like, “Tell me more” or “What makes you feel this way?” is simple, shows respect and enables you to self-regulate. They feed the good wolf. Getting defensive and trying to convince the other that he or she is wrong will feed the evil wolf.
Say what you believe while giving others the freedom to disagree.
Listening doesn’t mean you have to stuff your emotions. But you need to self-regulate. The key to being a non-anxious presence is being able to say what you believe while staying emotionally connected. This is hard to do. You WILL feel anxious inside. But if you can do this calmly, even humorously, you can bring down the tension in the situation.
Here is a phrase you can practice. “Hey, I respect your opinion. I’m just saying what I believe. You don’t have to agree with me. I just feel I need to be honest because I value our relationship.”
You’ll need to practice it a lot. The higher the emotional stakes, the harder it will be to do. So if you’ve never taken an emotional stand with a parent (or fill in the blank, i.e. sibling, spouse, pastor, congregant, boss, co-worker, etc.), it will take a lot to be able to do this. And, the likely result is things will get worse before they get better. But, if you can maintain a non-anxious presence, you will feed the good wolf. For both of you.
An exception is social media.
When it comes to social media, don’t do anything. It is not a place where people can have a reasonable discussion. So, just keep your thoughts to yourself and let go of it. If you get into a “discussion (more like argument)” on social media, nobody wins. You feed the evil wolf. If you let go of what bothers you, you feed the good wolf. It might be hard at first, but it will get easier with practice.
Finally, attend to the things that matter.
Invest in your spiritual life. Here’s my post on that. Connect with your family, however it is configured. Work through the issues in your family of origin. Learn to take non-anxious, emotional stands with those who are most important to you. If you do these things, your good wolf will grow strong. You will live a life filled with hope. And the evil wolf will starve.
I was listening to a recent Freakonomics podcast where they discussed the issue of what to do when a highway merges from two lanes to one. As Cynthia Gorney writes in her New York Times article, The Urge to Merge, this situation presents an ethical dilemma.
Do you line up in the remaining lane well before the merge or do you drive in the disappearing lane until you are required to merge?
Gorney coined the term lineuppers for the former and sidezoomers for the latter. She is a lineupper.
According to Freakonomics economist, Steven Levitt, the lineuppers are actually slowing things down for everyone. The most efficient use of the highway is for drivers to use both lanes completely and alternate merging into the remaining lane. This is called the zipper merge. This actually gets everyone to their destination sooner than politely lining up for the remaining lane.
Levitt contends that to change driver behavior, we need to change the instructions. And, in fact, I occasionally see the sign “Alternate Merge” where two lanes permanently go to one.
But until then, what will YOU do?
Will you politely line up as sidezoomers fly by you? Or will you make the most of the available asphalt real estate? If you do the former, will you seethe at the injustice and nearly kiss the bumper of the car in front of you to prevent a lowly sidezoomer from squeezing in? If you do the latter, will you zoom by without feeling guilty, knowing that you are actually doing a service for those who come after you or will you refuse to make eye-contact with a lineupper for fear that you may lose your resolve?
For most, the presence of this situation creates surrounding togetherness pressure. I certainly feel this. Even though I know that sidezooming is legal and is more efficient, I am often a lineupper because I don’t want to appear to be a jerk to people I don’t’ know. That’s surrounding togetherness pressure.
What does this have to do with being a non-anxious leader?
A non-anxious leader is comfortable with the decisions she makes and is not worried about what other people think or do.
Here are two scenarios. Feel free to choose either one.
Choose to be a lineupper. Own it. But, don’t get resentful when sidezoomers go by you. It’s their right. And when the merge comes, let a car in, knowing that they zoomed passed you because they could. You can even say to them silently, “Have a nice day.”
Or, choose to be a sidezoomer. Own it. Don’t feel guilty. But, don’t get angry if there are lineuppers who don’t want to let you in. They’ve got their own issues.
It’s your choice. And that’s the point. A non-anxious leader is able to own her position while giving others the freedom to disagree.
Finally, we can all agree that “fake-exit” guy is wrong. You know, the one who bypasses gridlocked traffic by running up the exit lane, then merges back into traffic at the last minute. That’s just wrong. Of course, if you’re that guy, feel free to disagree.
According to Emory University researchers, Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush, the most important factor in the well-being of children is having a family narrative. This comes from knowing stories such as where their grandparents grew up, how their parents met, what were the family tragedies and even the story of their birth.
Duke and Fivush found that children from families with a strong narrative were more resilient. This makes them better able to navigate the challenges of life, contributing to increased well-being.
There are three types of family narratives. You can read a summary here, but I’ll give you a quick rundown.
Ascending-this is the rags to riches story. “We used to have nothing, but through hard work and sacrifice we got to where we are today.”
Descending-this is the opposite. “We were on top of the world, but lost it all.”
Oscillating-this is the healthiest. “We’ve had ups and downs in our family. We’re grateful for what we have and have stayed close as a family.”
Clearly, the third narrative has resilience built into it. But, Duke and Fivush contend that any narrative helps. They say children have more self-confidence when they have a strong “intergenerational self.” They are a part of something bigger then themselves.
I grew up listening to the stories that my parents told about growing up as Japanese Americans. We heard these over and over. A small handful became lore in our family. Both my parents were born in Seattle, Washington. Their parents had emigrated from Japan around the turn of the 20th century. Pearl Harbor was a defining moment in my parents’ lives, for different reasons.
My mom and her siblings were actually living in Japan at the time of Pearl Harbor. Her parents were in Seatlle. They had sent the children to Japan while my grandfather rebuilt the family business, which was hit hard by the Great Depression.
My mom was attending college in Tokyo but the rest of her family was in Hiroshima, her mother’s hometown. She would tell us that the whole college was gathered for the assembly. When she heard the news, she felt the floor spinning out from underneath her. She thought she might never see her parents again.
Pearl Harbor was a defining for my father because it meant that President Roosevelt issued executive order 9066, which interned anyone with 1/8 Japanese blood in the interior West.
As grandparents, my folks continued to tell these stories. Once we were at our annual family Thanksgiving week in Hatteras, NC, when the power went out. Instead of watching TV, movies or playing video games, our children sat with us in a candle-lit living room while my parents told their stories. The kids were mesmerized. It helped them to understand what made their grandparents tick. It helped them to see themselves as a part of something larger than themselves.
The power came back on at about 10 PM. It was like cockroaches scattering when the kitchen light is turned on in the middle of the night. They were gone in seconds. Back to their electronic entertainment. Nonetheless, the stories became an important part of who they are.
A family narrative is strengthened by traditions, holidays, family vacations, regular dinners and even quirky rituals. They help to weave a child’s own story into the larger family narrative.
When one of my sons was about five, he asked, “Dad, when I get married, will my wife be a part of the family?”
I said, “Of course.”
He replied, “No. I mean, will she get to come to Hatteras?”
For him, being a part of our family meant being a part of our most cherished traditions. That’s a good thing.
The family narrative helps to define who we are and what it means to be family.
Whether you are a parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle or cousin, you can help the children in your family of origin by strengthening the family narrative. Ask the elders in the family to share. If you’re an elder, then share your defining moments. It’s a gift you can give to the next generation.
Next time: How a narrative can strengthen your ministry, business or organization.
Givers are focused on others and what they need from them. They don’t worry getting credit. They genuinely want to help others succeed. Givers help others without expecting anything in return.
As you would imagine, takers are focused on self. They want to get more than they give. Getting credit for what they do is important. Their own interests come first. Most takers aren’t cutthroat. It’s more about self-preservation, believing if they don’t take care of themselves first, no one else will.
Matchers believe in fairness and reciprocity. If they help others, they expect something in return. If you turn down a matcher when asked for help, don’t expect them to help you when asked.
These social interactions styles are fluid. You don’t always operate with one style. In fact, Grant contends that most of us our givers in our personal lives with friends and family. We’ll give without expecting anything in return. However, in the workplace the majority of people are matchers.
Are you a giver, a taker or a matcher?
Grant found that the across occupations, givers fall to the bottom of the corporate ladder. They make less money, get less of their own work done and are judged by others to be less powerful and dominant. Sacrificing one’s own self-interest can have a cost.
Surprisingly, givers are also disproportionately represented among top performers in the workplace. For example, Grant found that successful salespeople had much higher scores on their desire to help others. These givers produced 50% more annual income for their businesses than takers or matchers.
When givers succeed, their colleagues are more likely to be happy for them. They’re cheering them on. It’s hard to cheer on a taker, but when a giver succeeds we often say it couldn’t happen to a nicer person.
So what’s the difference between givers at the bottom and those at the top? Self-differentiation.
Well, Grant doesn’t put it that way, but that’s my take. Self-differentiation is the ability to define one’s own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures. It’s the ability to stand up for you believe and what you need?
Here are four differences between successful and unsuccessful givers.
The ability to be appropriately assertive.
Successful givers are not timid. They are able to be assertive when necessary. Unsuccessful givers are door mats. If you can’t stand up for yourself, it’s likely that takers will exploit you. Sometimes you need to advocate for yourself. If you can do this in a non-anxious way, giving others the freedom to disagree, you will not be perceived as a taker. People will understand you to be a giver who knows who you are.
The ability to set boundaries.
Givers have a hard time saying no. If you are giver, this not only means that you have no time for your most important work, but it also leaves you prone to burnout and unnecessary stress. It’s OK to say no to requests from others. You don’t even have to give a reason. You can just say, “I’m sorry, I’m not able to do that.” If you are respectful, non-anxious and polite, the other will understand that they have to live with it.
What’s interesting is that givers have more latitude to say no, because they also say yes more often than takers and matchers. Because they have developed a reputation for being helpful, people give them more grace when they say no.
The willingness to ask for help.
It’s funny because most givers will gladly help others, but have a hard time asking for help themselves. It feels like a sign of weakness. Successful givers know this is false. They know they can’t do it alone and are willing to ask others for help when they need it.
If you are a giver, be realistic with yourself. Figure out where you are falling short and how others can help you. Then pray for the courage to ask. Self-differentiation isn’t always about taking an assertive stand. It’s sometimes means having the courage to ask for what you need.
The ability to keep empathy in check.
Research by Daniel Batson makes it clear that people who feel empathy are willing to put the needs of others before their own. This is not a bad thing, but it puts them at greater risk of exploitation by takers.
Grant says that if you are a giver, then you can move from being an empathizer to being a perspective taker. The former feels others’ pain. The latter thinks about what the other needs, what will serve them well and what is in their best interests.
Successful givers use perspective taking to see where interests align and how they might best help. Rather than succumbing to their feelings of empathy for the other’s predicament, they limit their help to where their own gifts and interests best align with the other’s. This helps to keep what they do more manageable and valuable.
Are you a giver? Take heart. Self-differentiation will enable you to use this gift to be a more effective leader.
If not, think about how you can become the kind of giver who makes a difference for others, your mission and yourself.
“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult-once we truly understand and accept it-then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”
― M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values, and Spiritual Growth
I like to paraphrase Scott Peck this way. Life is hard. The sooner we realize this, the easier it gets.
In fact, I’ve decided that growing up is all about learning to do the things you don’t want to do. Some people learn this early in life. Some of us learn it later. Some never do.
I wrote recently about the symmetry of life. How sometimes hardship and blessing can balance each other out. But the reality is that most of us focus on the hardship and overlook the blessing.
Science bears this out. It’s called the Headwinds/Tailwinds Asymmetry. Research consistently shows that we remember the obstacles and hardships that we have to overcome. These are the headwinds in life. Conversely, we overlook the resources that we have and the benefits we may get that others don’t. These are the tailwinds.
The results of studies from Davidai S. Gilovich include:
People consistently believe their parents favored their sibling.
Pro football fans think the schedule is biased against their favorite team.
Both Republicans and Democrats believe the electoral map favors the other party.
In other words, our human nature is that we focus on the headwinds in life and overlook the tailwinds.
I’m a runner. I’ve noticed this as a physical phenomenon. I run faster when I have a tailwind. But I can’t feel it. I’m just going with it. If I don’t think about it, I think it’s all me. I run slower into a headwind. I can feel it. Always. And I know that this is causing me to slow down.
What about you? Do you take your tailwinds in life for granted? Do you think about how hard your life is, but forget the blessings?
This can cause us to think that your church is the only one that is struggling. Or your family is the only one that is dysfunctional. Or that other pastors get better assignments. Or that other employees get favored by the boss.
Rather than focusing on what is good, we focus on what is hard.
The significant part of Gilovich’s research is this, the more someone feels they have been treated unfairly, the more likely they are to approve of morally questionable behavior.
Gratitude doesn’t just make life better for you, it will help you to live life in the way God intended.
So give thanks today for your tailwinds, whatever they may be. Acknowledge the privilege you have that others don’t. Think about the advantages that you have that you so often overlook. Remember the people who have helped you along the way. Perhaps you can even be somebody else’s tailwind. Your life will get easier.